BRISTOL - ‚ÄúSomewhere, in a small town theatre, a group of actors are performing ‚ÄėTwo Gentlemen of Verona‚Äô (arguably Shakespeare‚Äôs worst play‚Ä¶!) but one of the cast members isn‚Äôt happy. His career is going nowhere, he‚Äôs sick of the show, and he wants out.‚ÄĚ
That‚Äôs how the Bristol (U.K.) Shakespeare Festival describes a new play co-written by Bristol (Connecticut) native Mike Reiss and Nick Newlin. The play, appropriately titled ‚ÄúShakespeare‚Äôs Worst,‚ÄĚ will premier July 4 at the festival.
Reiss is a comedy writer best known for his work on ‚ÄúThe Simpsons.‚ÄĚ He said the idea for the play originated when he saw the phrase ‚ÄúShakespeare‚Äôs worst‚ÄĚ in an article and started thinking about it.
He settled on ‚ÄúTwo Gentlemen of Verona,‚ÄĚ and turned it into what he calls ‚ÄúMystery Science Theater 1600,‚ÄĚ referring to the classic TV comedy in which the characters make jokes about bad movies.
‚ÄúSo this one character in the play knows it‚Äôs terrible and he just keeps up this steady stream of commentary to the audience about how bad the play is,‚ÄĚ Reiss said.
With the help of his college friend Newlin, a Shakespeare scholar who has written condensed versions of the Bard‚Äôs plays, Reiss expanded what started as a random idea into a full length play.
‚ÄúThere are literally hundreds of Shakespeare festivals going on all over the world so I just sent it off blind to all of them,‚ÄĚ he said. ‚ÄúThe one that responded was Bristol, England, and the director is from the Royal Shakespeare Company.‚ÄĚ
Reiss plans to see the show and talk with the audience afterward.
‚ÄúIt‚Äôs just so funny to me because I was very happy growing up in Bristol and my whole life I‚Äôve been hearing about Bristol, England, and I‚Äôve always been curious about it. The coincidence of it really tickles me, and actually the people in Bristol England are very tickled too,‚ÄĚ he said.
‚ÄúThe funny thing is I sent it out to all these Shakespeare festivals, most of them didn‚Äôt respond at all, but I got a very indignant letter from the Hawaiian Shakespeare Festival that said ‚Äėyou know, it‚Äôs hard enough getting people to like Shakespeare without you writing a play like this.‚Äô An indignant Hawaiian was something I didn‚Äôt know existed,‚ÄĚ he joked.
‚ÄúAnd literally right after that I got the acceptance from Bristol, England, and so I write back to the Hawaiian guy saying ‚Äėthey just announced they‚Äôre doing my play in England.‚Äô He wrote back saying ‚Äėwell, that shows what I know,‚Äô‚ÄĚ he said.
‚ÄúI‚Äôm hoping other Shakespeare festivals pick this up, particularly the Hawaiian Shakespeare Festival,‚ÄĚ he added.
Reiss has a short video on Youtube in which he talks about ‚ÄúShakespeare‚Äôs Worst.‚ÄĚ In it he makes a joke about a guy named Mervyn Payne, but Reiss explains viewers shouldn‚Äôt take that part seriously because Payne was actually a real person who attended Reiss‚Äôs alma mater Bristol Eastern High School.
‚ÄúFor the purposes of this joke I needed an English-sounding name. He barely knew me, I‚Äôm sure he will be very surprised to see me talking about him 40 years later,‚ÄĚ he said.
Reiss also admits he personally is not fond of Shakespeare.
‚ÄúI think obviously he was a great writer in his time, he‚Äôs great with words, he created timeless characters, but there‚Äôs a lot of it that‚Äôs just so boring and hard to follow,‚ÄĚ he said. ‚ÄúPeople, including me, when they go to see Shakespeare, the highest compliment they could pay an actor is ‚Äėhe‚Äôs so good I could tell what was going on.‚Äô To me that‚Äôs a really low bar.‚ÄĚ
Still, Reiss notes it‚Äôs not like he‚Äôs ranking on ‚ÄúHamlet.‚ÄĚ
‚Äú‚ÄėTwo Gentleman of Verona‚Äô was Nick‚Äôs pick, and it was inspired,‚ÄĚ he said. ‚ÄúIt‚Äôs a bad play all the way through. It‚Äôs probably Shakespeare‚Äôs first play and you‚Äôve literally never seen a play end as badly as Shakespeare ended this play. In fact the ending is so bad that in my play they go through it three times, just so my character can break it down and explain what happened and why.‚ÄĚ
After years of writing for television and movies, Reiss has been concentrating on plays lately but comedy is always his forte. ‚ÄúIt is absolutely all I‚Äôm good for in this world,‚ÄĚ he said.
‚ÄúShakespeare‚Äôs Worst‚ÄĚ is his third produced play.
His first one came about when he was giving a speech at the University of Connecticut and someone in the theater department suggested he write a play about Connecticut. The result was titled ‚ÄúI‚Äôm Connecticut,‚ÄĚ which premiered at UConn and then moved to the Ivoryton Playhouse.
Reiss decided he liked playwriting. ‚ÄúIt doesn‚Äôt pay anything but it‚Äôs really easy!‚ÄĚ
His second play was ‚ÄúComedy is Hard,‚ÄĚ which was also produced at the Ivoryton Playhouse. His fourth, ‚ÄúI Hate Musicals: The Musical,‚ÄĚ opens this September in Ivoryton.
‚ÄúI‚Äôve loved writing them. I have one more sitting in the docket, but I would really like to have a life for some of these plays outside of Ivoryton. I‚Äôd love to get as far as Old Saybrook or New London,‚ÄĚ he joked.
‚ÄúI have this secret hope that my old high school, Bristol Eastern, will do one,‚ÄĚ he added. ‚ÄúIf they should do one of my plays, I‚Äôll come to see it.‚ÄĚ
Susan Corica can be reached at 860-973-1802 or firstname.lastname@example.org.